Kolkata, India – The sky over Eden Gardens was leaden gray, the air thick with a choking mix of humidity, smog and the question of which team would face India in Sunday’s Cricket World Cup final.
Kolkata pulsated with vibrant colors and noise throughout the week amid the parallel festivals of Diwali, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness, and Kali Puja, celebrating the victory of good over evil.
Thursday’s semi-final was not a competition of such absolutes, but rather a fight between the guys who had almost done it and those with whom we had already done it all. South Africa played in four cup matches without clearing the final hurdle; Australia has lifted the trophy five times, more than any other country.
If there is intergenerational trauma, logic suggests that the opposite must also be true; this Australian team believes that overcoming the vagaries of tournament play is in their blood. This gives them self-confidence and underlies their aggressive self-belief.
Consider their captain Pat Cummins’ statement on the eve of the match: “We have a lot of players who have been in this situation before, who have won the One-Day World Cup, the T20 World Cup and various other tournaments in big moments. So I think that really helps. You can use this during competitions.
Compare this to the words of his South African counterpart, Temba Bavuma, who admitted he was nervous: “Emotions confirmed. I don’t think you can deny it or run away from it, but there are also solutions or mechanisms that have been given on how to deal with this anxiety if you feel it is overwhelming you.
“I think only two guys in that group made it to the semi-finals, Quinton [de Kock] and David Miller, so the rest of the guys don’t have a lot of experience.”
It was surprisingly honest, but openly admitting any weakness to ruthless Australia is tantamount to cutting your hand open and pushing it into shark-infested waters. They just need to smell the blood.
Australia’s plan with bat and ball was to strike first and set the teeth chattering. They talked about it in team meetings and transferred their plans to the pitch. Bavuma won the toss and elected to bat first under heavy clouds on a pitch that was under cover all morning; It was an invitation.
Throughout the tournament, South Africa’s batsmen were a different beast when they batted first, winning every match and most by a huge margin. Their only two defeats came when they were forced to chase down. By using their strength to throw, they may have inadvertently admitted weakness; second invitation.
The Australian opening bowlers did not need a third wicket, especially in favorable conditions, which was due to the dangerous swing and delivery of Mitchell Starc and the metronomic line and length of Josh Hazlewood, with an added kick in the form of sharp seam movements.
Under the unrelenting glow of the lights crowning the brutalist red and white towers of Eden Gardens, it was impossible to hide from the most brutal examination below. Bavuma lasted four balls before picking up and bowling Starc off his off-stump. Quinton de Kock, playing his last match for South Africa, lasted 13 deliveries and then skied over a Hazlewood ball for Cummins to catch.
Throughout the week, trucks blaring music and filled with inhabitants and images of Kali filled the streets, a four-armed blue-skinned goddess that was a mixture of beauty and ferocity; the same two elements combined in the double Australian attack.
South Africa averaged 49.44 in the powerplay throughout the tournament but were stifled here and limped to 18 for 2 in the first 10 overs. The pair bowled 61 dot balls in the first 13 overs, effectively bowling 10 maidens between them. Teeth gnashed and more blows were to come.
When Aiden Markram drove hard into Starc and a sharp back-hitter went towards the diving Dave Warner, the fielder’s joy – a happy dance while jogging – said it all. Australia didn’t sweat, it released alpha pheromones, while South Africa’s cakes seemed to recede in their glass shells; all the squirts, edges and defensive triggers to stave off misfortune.
They managed to avoid this thanks to the stubborn David Miller. His imperious century was made even more impressive by the carnage surrounding him. Backed by the typically aggressive Heinrich Klassen, Miller dragged his team to a total of 212.
In response, the Australian power play was equally devastating, with the four arms of Travis Head and Warner channeling Kali’s devastating power. After swinging unsuccessfully at Marco Jansen’s first delivery, Head dropped to one knee and used the other to hit cover point for the four all mustachioed machismo. Machis-mo, if you want.
It was a tale of two power plays, with Australia dominating both. After 10 overs they were leading 72 to 2 and from then on they were able to sufficiently withstand the onslaught of the South African spinners on an uneven pitch.
Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi and Aiden Markram provided a counter-attack and some nervy moments with their fizzing passes, while Gerald Coetzee fought with heart and gusto, but the damage had already been done and Australia could afford it.
Australia may have lost seven wickets, may have needed more than 47 overs, but the result seemed sealed long before Pat Cummins sealed victory with a wicket.
The Gardens of Eden were a paradise lost in South Africa; Kolkata, Australia’s city of joy.